Why Are My Calf Muscles Sore?

Have sore calf muscles put a little ouch in your giddyap? Even if you're a seasoned exerciser, it's normal to have some soreness when you first start a new workout regimen. It's also normal to experience mild to moderate delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, after any unusually strenuous workout. But there are a few other things that could be making your calves hurt, from overdoing it on calf exercises to lack of hydration and chronic or acute injuries.

Sore calves are usually a result of delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. (Image: stockstudioX/iStock/GettyImages)

Tip

Although there are several reasons your calf muscles might be sore, the causes usually boil down to new exercises, overexertion, a lack of appropriate self-care between workouts or a combination of all three.

Meet Your Calf Muscles

Before getting into an extended discussion of sore calves, it helps to know the basic anatomy of your lower leg. There are two muscles at work here: The gastrocnemius is the beefy, two-headed muscle that's easily visible from the rear. The soleus is a smaller muscle that's located deep to the gastrocnemius, or between the gastrocnemius and your leg bones.

Both muscles activate for plantarflexion, also known as pointing your toe, but your leg position makes a difference as to which muscle works. If your leg is straight at the knee, the gastrocnemius can contract powerfully. If your leg is bent at the knee, your soleus bears almost all the load on its own.

Sore Calves From New Workouts

If you've just started a new workout regimen, or bumped up a level of intensity in your existing workouts, it's not unusual to experience some soreness in your muscles including your calves. You can also experience DOMS after any workout if it's strenuous enough, especially if you choose exercises that emphasize the negative portion of the movement — the part where your muscle lengthens while under load.

DOMS usually comes on in the 12 to 24 hours following your workout and fades after three to five days. With that said, you don't have to work out to the point of soreness to benefit from your workouts. The old adage of "no pain, no gain" is a myth, and should be rewritten to something milder like "no effort, no gain."

In fact, if you experience debilitating soreness that lasts for longer than seven days, or if your soreness is accompanied by very dark urine or swelling of your limbs, you might be suffering from a form of muscle breakdown known as rhabdomyolysis, which can be life-threatening. Seek medical attention immediately.

Overdoing It on Calf Exercises

Have you recently added calf-intense exercises to your workout routine? If so, it's not unusual to feel some soreness as your calves adapt. While you might expect your calves to hurt after something like jumping rope, the truth is that all jumping and skipping exercises work your calves too, along with anything that lifts your heels off the ground. Some of the other exercises that might give you sore calves include:

  • Calf raises
  • Side shuffles
  • Front or side lunges
  • Running
  • Hiking uphill
  • Stair climbing
  • Step aerobics

Tips to Prevent Leg Pain

Although a certain amount of mild to moderate muscle soreness is typical after tough workouts, it shouldn't be your goal, and it doesn't need to be treated as a badge of honor. The good news is that there are a number of things you can do to help prevent sore calves.

Ease into new exercises gradually. Take your time when you adopt a new exercise that works your calves; introduce it gradually, slowly upping the intensity, duration or frequency as your calves adapt.

Do proactive strengthening. If just one particular activity is making your calves sore, consider doing some proactive strengthening for your calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus. Standing calf raises are an excellent workout for the gastrocnemius, while seated calf raises primarily work the soleus. With that said, your body adapts to what you ask it to do; so if it's jumping exercises that make your calves sore, incorporate some milder jumping exercises into your strengthening workout.

Warm up and cool down. Warming up and cooling down can help prevent or at least reduce post-workout soreness. A solid warmup is especially important if you're participating in high-impact activities like jumping, because giving your body a chance to elevate its core temperature and increase blood flow to your muscles reduces your risk of injury.

Stay hydrated. Staying hydrated not only improves your exercise performance, it also reduces your risk of muscle strain — also known as a pulled muscle — which is another reason you might develop sore calves after working out.

Eat well and sleep well. If you just worked out, you've earned a snack — but make it a healthy one. Incorporating healthy carbohydrates and protein into a post-workout meal can help your body recover more quickly.

Take breaks. Are you giving your body enough recovery time between workouts? If you're doing resistance training, you should separate your workout days for any given muscle group with at least one full rest day in between. If you're just starting out, you might need two or three days to recover.

Your calves are so instrumental in any sort of jumping or shuffling exercise that even if you aren't thinking "resistance training" as you do those workouts, you might still need a couple of days afterward to recover.

Tip

The general rule for working out when sore is that a light workout may help boost circulation and reduce soreness, but heavy workouts are a no-go until the soreness fades.

Stretch Your Calves

Stretching feels good, but there's not much scientific proof that it can actually reduce soreness. That said, the improved flexibility from a regular stretching routine can help prevent injury — especially if you're doing high-impact, calf-intensive jumping exercises. Right after you work out, when your muscles are still warm, is the perfect opportunity to stretch your calves out.

Stretch your gastrocnemius. Stand facing a wall. Place both hands on the wall for support, if need be, and take a good-size step backward with just one foot.

Bend your front knee a little, but keep the back leg straight as you press that back heel toward the floor, stretching to the point of mild muscular tension, not pain. If you're very flexible, you might need to slide your rear foot farther back until you feel the stretch.

Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds then relax, repeating it a total of three to five times. Make sure you take the time to stretch out your other leg, too.

Try an easy soleus stretch. Do exactly as described for the gastrocnemius stretch — but instead of keeping your rear leg straight as you press your heel down toward the floor, let it bend gently at the knee. If you pay attention, you'll be able to feel when the stretch shifts from your gastrocnemius to the soleus.

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